John Battelle said he expected a small group, maybe 20. But three times as many people filled the room for his recent talk on “The Transformation of Internet Business – the Role of Data, Technology and Policy.” Students from Columbia’s schools of business and journalism joined SIPA’s own in taking every seat and then lining the walls. The event, sponsored by SIPA’s Entrepreneurship and Policy Initiative and Technology, Media and Communications specialization, even ran out of pizza.
The unexpectedly popular Battelle, who recently joined the SIPA faculty as a senior research scholar, is an entrepreneur, author, and journalist with 31 years’ experience in technology and media. He was the co-founding editor of Wired magazine and helped launch a laundry list of mostly media-based technology companies.
Battelle began covering technology in 1984 when he wrote a story about the first Mac computer, which he called, as he has in the past, “the most important artifact in the history of humankind.” Now the fifth-generation Californian has moved to New York, where he’ll teach tech, policy and entrepreneurship at SIPA this spring.
Battelle said he moved from the west coast tech and business center to encounter more diverse people and opinions. Too many people in the Bay Area, he said, “didn’t understand and did not care about journalism.
“People were not particularly concerned about projecting forward the implications of what they might be building,” he added. “That’s what I’ve cared about my whole career – what you may call a publication. A place where people gather to talk about things they care about.”
Another notable change over the last decade or so, Battelle said, is that the internet has become much more commodified.
Early on, Google “allowed you to ask questions. Get answers. Wander around,” he said. But today’s cyberspace doesn’t offer the same “joyful serendipity in the journey.”
The cause, Battelle said, is a fusion of tech and capitalism that has come to dominate data.
“We need a different approach to how we process information and how our information is processed,” he said. “What we have failed to do is visualize or understand what our current relationship with information is.”
At SIPA, he has begun research that maps the dissemination of information in the new digital age. The project — called Mapping Data Flows, or MPF — will create a multi-layered map of how data flows within one highly complex technology system.
At first, the research will concentrate on the advertising technology industry to illustrate how data is exchanged, comingled, processed and stored and how actors, private and public, interreact with it. Battelle also said he plans to expand the project to agriculture, health care and financial services.
“These kinds of systems are absolutely like oxygen,” he said. “Driving almost everything. We need to study them.”
Battelle’s spring course is entitled Internet Business Models and U.S. Policy. It will give students a chance to dig deep into these emerging ideas, pull back, look at the wider picture, and ask interesting questions.
— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19